One of the most interesting places in this interesting land of ours is the United States Military Academy at West Point, overlooking the lordly Hudson. What a world of memories a visit there calls up! No loyal American can spend a day there without returning to his home a better citizen.
But the Catholic visitor, as he passes out of the church lately built on the Academy grounds, experiences a higher feeling than even that of patriotism as he calls to mind the long roll of illustrious sons of West Point numbered among our American converts. Greater than all their victories in battle was the grace of conversion, given to some, it may be, while yet pursuing their studies, to others on the battlefield, or, perhaps, in the evening of their days. No other institution in this country has given so many soldiers to the great army of the Prince of Peace as has this military school. It may, therefore, prove interesting, as well as instructive, if we speak of these convert sons of West Point.a
So far as the writer has been able to learn, General Abbott Hall Brisbane, of the Engineer Corps, was the earliest student at West Point who afterwards became a Catholic. He was graduated there in 1825, and after serving on topographical duty, and in the Indian wars, acted as engineer-in‑chief in the construction of railroads in the Southern States. Later on, General Brisbane was appointed Professor of English in the South Carolina Military Academy. (General Brisbane's widow is remembered in religion as Sister Mary Borgia, of the Visitation Convent, Georgetown.)
Lieutenant Clark resigned his position in the army in 1830 to become a soldier in the illustrious Company of Jesus. Father Clark was one of the ablest of all the American Jesuits. He was for a time President of Holy Cross College, Worcester, and Georgetown, D. C.c It was a graceful tribute to this son of Loyola that he was appointed a member of the Board of Visitors to West Point at the time of the Civil War.
One year after the conversion of Clark was graduated Lucius Bellinger Northrop, classmate and lifelong friend of Jefferson Davis. "The most abused man of the Southern Confederacy was, and still is, Lucius Bellinger Northrop, the Commissary-General of the Confederate Army," writes Eugene Didier ("Spare Moments," Oct., 1907).
From the first battle of Bull Run to the last battle before Petersburgh,º every disaster to the South was blamed on General Northrop, who was made the scapegoat of the Confederacy.
Davis, however, certainly had a high opinion of his ability and fitness for the position when he said: "To direct the production, collection, preservation and transportation of food for the army required a man of rare capacity. It was our good fortune to find such a man in L. B. Northrop. He had been an officer of the United States Army, had served in various parts of the South, had been for some time on duty in the commissariat, and to special and general knowledge thus acquired, added strong practical sense and incorruptible integrity. He performed his difficult duty with success."
p179 General Northrop has been buried under a sea of obloquy by Northern and Southern writers; and the facts recently presented by Mr. Didier from original letters and documents, throwing as they do a new light upon a most interesting part of the Civil War, demand that an important chapter of the history of the Lost Cause be rewritten in the cause of truth and justice.d
General Northrop came of a family of converts, including his mother and sisters and his brother, Claudian, father of the Catholic Bishop of Charleston.
Major-General Erasmus Darwin Keyes was graduated from West Point in 1832, standing tenth in a class of forty-five. After serving in Charleston during the Nullification troubles, he was appointed aide to General Scott in the Indian wars. At the end of the last war he was sent as artillery and cavalry instructor to West Point, where he remained for four years; from there he was called away to act as military secretary to his old commander. It is an interesting historical fact that when General Scott was made lieutenant-general, being allowed a military secretary with the rank of lieutenant-colonel, he offered the position to Robert E. Lee, by whom it was refused, whereupon he offered it to Captain Keyes, who accepted and entered on his duties in 1860.
For distinguished services at the battle of Fair Oaks, Keyes received the brevet of brigadier-general. Unfortunately, owing to misrepresentations made by an officer to the War Department, the career of General Keyes in the Civil War was shortened and he was appointed to a position on the board for retiring officers.
Like all of his family, General Keyes was a convert to the Church. He came of staunch old Puritan stock, but when well advanced in life he became a Catholic. He tells us in his "Autobiography" (a most delightful book) that, while serving in the Northwestern country he met Father Jaset, a Jesuit priest, who instructed him in the Catholic religion. He says it was primarily due to that good priest's influence that, at a subsequent date, he turned Catholic.
After a long life the old warrior died at Nice, October 14, 1895. His remains were conveyed to this country, and after a requiem Mass in St. Agnes' Church, New York, his body was taken to West Point for burial. Dr. Edward L. Keyes of New York, one of the most celebrated physicians and scientists of the United States, is a son of General Keyes.
Another fine type of a convert was the late Major Henry S. Turner, graduate of West Point in 1834, hero of the Mexican and Civil wars and sometime Assistant U. S. Treasurer at St. Louis.
One day there arrived at West Point from Whitefield, Maine, a young lad of sixteen, Eliakim Parker Scammon by name, who was destined later to adorn a high place among our model Catholic American laymen. He graduated seventh in a class of forty-six in the year 1837, having for classmates Benham, Hooker and Sedgwick of the Union Army, and Bragg, Pemberton and Early, of the Confederates. Immediately upon his graduation, Lieutenant Scammon was assigned to duty as assistant professor of mathematics at his Alma Mater, where he remained until ordered to Florida to serve under General Taylor in the Seminole War.
In 1887 he married Miss Margaret Stebbins, of Springfield, Mass. (also a convert), and about the same time he was appointed assistant professor of ethics at West Point, remaining there for five years. At the end of that time he went as aide to General Scott on the Mexican campaign, but was forced by ill-health to return to the States.
When the Southern States seceded, Scammon resigned his position of principal in the Polytechnic College, Cincinnati, and offered his services to the p180 Government. He performed brilliant and valiant services in West Virginia, at the second battle of Bull Run, and at South Mountain and Antietam. With two regiments he held the enemy in check at Bull Run bridge during the retreat of General Pope. For this gallant service he was made a brigadier-general, and at Antietam commanded a division.
On the third of February, 1864, as General Scammon was passing in a boat from Gallipolis to his headquarters in Charleston, W. Va, he was surprised by a band of Confederates who hurried him off to Richmond. Here he was kept a captive in Libby Prison for three months, finally being exchanged for other prisoners in August the same year.
He was received into the Catholic Church in 1845 in old St. Peter's Church, Barclay Street, New York.
So long ago as when at West Point, Cardinal Wiseman's lectures on the Holy Eucharist came into his hands, and the first step in his conversion was taken, although it was seven years before the final one was made. While deeply engaged in the study of doctrinal subjects, the General carried on a controversy, through the medium of the Churchman, New York, with a writer in the Freeman's Journal on religious questions. Neither writer knew the identity of the other, but General Scammon, after his confirmation by Archbishop Hughes, made known to him that he was the author of the Protestant part of the discussion and expressed a wish to learn the name of the writer of the other side, whose articles, he frankly owned, had hastened his conversion. Those who knew General Scammon can realize his delight when the Archbishop disclosed himself as his opponent!
One of the first acts of General Scammon's Catholic life was to apologize publicly for his articles in the Churchman against Papal Infallibility.e He came of very anti-Catholic stock; his brother, Jonathan Scammon, was a Swedenborgian and the founder of the Chicago Inter-Ocean, also of the Hahnemann Hospital. It is worthy of mention that his father, Puritan as he was, on receiving a letter from his son telling him of his conversion, replied in a noble and pious strain, lauding the writings of the Fathers of the Church, and urging him to follow the dictates of his conscience. General Scammon was, to quote the Hon. Whitelaw Reid, "A man of winning manners; to his equals just and kind, but not familiar, and to his inferiors a rigid disciplinarian. In religion he was a sincere and devout Roman Catholic." While professor of ethics at West Point he had among his pupils Generals Grant, Rosecrans, Newton, and others who later on attained fame in the army. Among those who served under him in the Civil War were General Stanley Mathews and President McKinley.
Major-General Andrew Jackson Smith, graduated in 1838, waited until his deathbed to make his submission to the Church; but we are glad the old warrior had the grace to receive the last sacraments.
The class of 1839 turned out Major-General Henry J. Hunt, the distinguished artillery officer of the Civil War, and a son of Captain Thomas Hunt of the Revolutionary war, who had as classmate a born Catholic, General Edward Ord. General Hunt was in charge of all the cavalry at the battle of Gettysburg, where he made a great charge, and was chief artillery officer of the Army of the Potomac until the end of the war. General says that as a writer General Hunt had no equal in the army;f and on his death, in 1889, the Secretary of War said of him: "It is needless to recite his deeds; the army of to‑day knows them; the army of the future will find them in history."
In the class of 1841 were the pious and lamented Garesche, Don Carlos Buell, and Amiel Weeks Whipple — p181 these last two destined to find their way into the Church, influenced, no doubt, by the example of their Catholic classmate. General Whipple was a New Englander, having been born in Greenwich, Mass., in the year 1818. After finishing his studies at Amherst he entered the military academy, and immediately after graduating was engaged in hydrographic surveys and as assistant astronomer of the Mexican Boundary Commission. On the outbreak of hostilities between the two States, Whipple was given a commission in the army. He was later attached to the staff of General McClellan, with the rank of brigadier general of volunteers, and assigned to the defences of the Potomac. His services here were so well performed that he received the personal thanks of President Lincoln.
During the battle of Chancellorsville, his division, the Third Army Corps, was much exposed, and suffered more probably in that engagement than any other division of the army. He was shot when the battle was practically at an end, and, living three days, was appointed major-general for gallantry in action. It was just at this period of his career that he was received into the Church.
Whipple's classmate, Major-General Don Carlos Buell, was another of the many great sons of Ohio to find the true faith. At the beginning of the Civil War Buell assisted in organizing the army collected near Washington. In November, 1861, he was placed in command of the Department of the Ohio. He appeared with one of his divisions on the battlefield of Shiloh in time to help General Grant; on the following day, his other divisions having arrived, the Confederates were driven back to Corinth.
For failure to follow Bragg, whom he had driven to Cumberland Gap, Buell was ordered to turn over his command to Major-General William Starke Rosecrans, another convert son of Ohio. In the class of 1842, of which General Rosecrans was a member, were two other famous men who afterwards became converts to the Church — Major-General John Newton, U. S. A., and Lieutenant-General James Longstreet, of the Confederate Army.
Unlike General Rosecrans, General Longstreet was to become a Catholic late in life, when family bereavement turned his mind towards religion. James Ryder Randall, author of that stirring war-poem, "Maryland, My Maryland,"1 had the story of his conversion from the lips of General Longstreet himself.
One of the most remarkable achievements in engineering science known to history was the plowing up of Hell Gate Channel and other points on East River, New York, in the seventies by Major-General John Newton, U. S. A., fellow classmate of Rosecrans and Longstreet.
General Newton was a Virginian, the son of Thomas Newton, who represented the Norfolk district in Congress for thirty years. He graduated second in his class and entered on active service as chief engineer of the Department of Pennsylvania. Later he was chief engineer of the Department of the Shenandoah and assisted in the construction of the defences of Washington. The latter post was one of great responsibility then, and Major Newton did much to insure the safety of the city in case of an attack. He held various commands in the army, participating in most of the principal battles of the Civil War. But the work for which his name will live in history was the plowing up of Hell Gate. He was a fervent convert, ever ready to give a reason for the faith which was in him. Notre Dame conferred p182 upon him the coveted Laetare medal.
Father Deshon, the last survivor of the founders of the Paulists, was a son of West Point. He was born in New London, Conn., in 1823, of Huguenot stock. He was a son of the Rev. George H. Deshon, a Congregationalist minister of New Haven. He entered West Point, from which he was graduated with distinction, and for five years was an assistant professor there. He graduated second in military engineering and first in artillery in a class of thirty-nine members. Twenty-four of these became generals in the army. At West Point he was a classmate and roommate of General Grant, and at his death he was one of the three surviving members of that class. For ten years he was an officer in active service in the regular army. He resigned from the army on October 31, 1851, and four years afterward, to the day, he became a Catholic priest.
"I was always sorry that Deshon left the army," said General Grant, once. "I believe he would have made a conspicuous mark in the Civil War."
Lieutenant Curd had a short and pathetic life. He was a native of Kentucky, and entered the military academy while still very young. He resigned his commission in the army on becoming a Catholic in 1847. He entered the Jesuit novitiate, and was for a time a professor at Holy Cross College, Worcester. He died at the novitiate of St. Ignatius, Frederick, Maryland, at the early age of twenty-five.
We now come to the history of a much-abused man, the late General Charles Pomeroy Stone, engineer-in‑chief of the Bartholdi statue, New York.º He was descended from a line of Puritan ancestors who had taken part in every battle in which the American people had been engaged, and hence by heredity he was a soldier. Stone was graduated from West Point in the year 1845 with a fellow convert, General E. Kirby Smith, of the Confederate Army. Like all soldiers of his day, Stone served in Mexico, and for a time was a professor at West Point. While in Mexico he made the ascent of Popocatepetl, and planted, at the risk of his life, the American flag on the very summit of the volcano. He gave a description of this dangerous feat some years later to his friend Humboldt, while visiting the latter in Germany.
At the call to arms in '61, Stone was one of the first to offer his services to his country; and if he had been treated properly there is no doubt that to‑day we would see his statue raised as high as those of Grant and Sherman. But this was not to be.
"He was held responsible for the blunders at Ball's Bluff, arrested and incarcerated in Ft. Lafayette, N. Y., without any charges against him, denied all intercourse with others, and treated as a common felon" (General Cullum). And Mr. Blaine writes: "His case will stand as a warning against future violations of the liberty which is the birthright of every American, and against the danger of appeasing popular clamor by the sacrifice of an innocent man."
On his release from prison General Stone entered the service of the Khedive of Egypt, where he rose to a position corresponding to that of a British field-marshal. Thus was he obliged to give to a foreign power the services which his own country refused. We know of no gloomier page in the gloomy history of our Civil War than this chapter dealing with General Stone and the authorities at Washington. General Stone and his sister, Fanny Cushing Parker, were converts to the Church.
p183 But to tell the story of the remainder of these convert sons of West Point we would need twice the space that we have to give to this article, so we will refer to them simply by name.
The class of 1846 graduated Major-General John Gray Foster and General Samuel D. Sturgis, two men whose names are written indelibly across the pages of the history of the Civil War, and who were also to find their way into the Church of their God.
Another distinguished convert was Washington C. Tevis, colonel of the Third Maryland Cavalry, in command of a regiment, Department of the Gulf, during the Civil War; he went to France, where he became a brigadier-general, and then to Egypt to hold a like position. Finally he fought for Pope Pius in that Pontiff's struggle against the Italians. Then there were General William Cabell, C. S. A., General David Sloan Stanley, General Thomas Vincent, General Robert Tyler, General John S. Bowen, C. S. A., Colonel Elmer Otis, Colonel Joseph Tilford, Lieutenant Joseph C. Ives, General Hardee C. S. A., General Hugh Judson Kilpatrick, General Martin D. Hardin, Colonel Bullitt Alexander, Lieutenant Thomas Stockton, Major Edward McK. Hudson, General Charles MacDougall, M. D., surgeon at West Point, and his son, Captain Thomas MacDougall. His brother, Colonel William C. MacDougall, the celebrated geologist and author, followed him into the Church.g
These names are taken at random and the writer does not claim to have given a complete list of the men connected with West Point who have become Catholics. He has, however, tried to be as accurate in his statements as reference to authorities bearing on the Academy could make them.
1 It is a striking fact that another favorite Confederate war-song, "The Bonnie Blue Flag," was likewise composed by a convert — Annie Chambers Ketchum.
Thayer's Note: The author of the lyrics is usually said to be an Irish comedian by the name of Harry McCarthy, the tune being that to a much older song; see for example S. C. Arthur, The West Florida Rebellion, p154.
c "Georgetown" — if it doesn't mean that Holy Cross had a second campus there — appears to be a mistake for "Gonzaga", although he seems to have been Vice-President of Georgetown College at two different times, for a total of two years; see Cullum's Register of Graduates of the U. S. Military Academy (entry #574, Class of 1829).
d For further details, see Gen. Northrop's 1894 obituary by Didier, in the 1894 Annual Report of the Association of Graduates.
e He need not have, at least not on general grounds: papal infallibility did not become Catholic dogma until 1870; in 1845 each Catholic was free to believe it or not, and to argue against it if they chose.
f This is the kind of mistake that even a student should not make. Cullum says nothing of the sort: see the passage in question, where (a) Cullum doesn't say it, but merely quotes Capt. Birkhimer; (b) Birkhimer in turn doesn't say it either, but writes: "As a writer it is questionable if he had his equal in the Army."
g In Heitman's Historical Register and Dictionary of the United States Army the family name is spelled McDougall. None of these three officers was a West Pointer; and Heitman lists only the first two as U. S. Army officers: there is no Colonel William McDougall.
Images with borders lead to more information.
The thicker the border, the more information. (Details here.)
History of West Point
American History Notes
A page or image on this site is in the public domain ONLY
if its URL has a total of one *asterisk.
If the URL has two **asterisks,
the item is copyright someone else, and used by permission or fair use.
If the URL has none the item is © Bill Thayer.
See my copyright page for details and contact information.
Page updated: 17 Mar 16